It took 75 years, but a Pensacola, Florida, woman received the ultimate early Christmas gift this year when her husband helped her to track down her birth mother and learned that she was still alive — at age 91.
Now Lesley Ortiz, 75, and her mom, Betty Waring Davis, who lives at a care center in St. Petersburg, Florida, are making up for lost time, sharing old photographs, comparing favorite colors and cuisines and singing country-western songs, all while looking at each other with a mixture of joy and disbelief that Lesley’s deepest wish came true.
“Never in my life did I think that this would happen — I feel like my life story is just beginning,” Lesley, a retired teacher, tells PEOPLE. “I was happy growing up, and I had kind and loving parents. But I always wondered where I came from. I wanted to look like somebody. And now, I finally do.”
Persuaded by her husband, Bob Ortiz, 77, a retired architect, Lesley was finally convinced to take a DNA test through 23andMe this past summer, to find some answers about her past.
“She’d always expressed a curiosity,” says Bob, “but as she got older, she realized that she had no family history that could help her if any health issues came up. Since she had a name for her birth mother, we decided to search.”
After Bob found some DNA matches listed at 23andMe, he sent a letter to one of Lesley’s first cousins. Lesley was shocked and delighted when the relative called to inform her that not only was she on the right track, but her mom was still alive.
And there was more good news to come.
“I learned that I had two younger sisters, both in St. Petersburg, where my birth mom was,” Lesley tells PEOPLE. “It was overwhelming. I felt like I’d hit the jackpot.”
Not wanting to upset Betty or her newly-found siblings — Cathy Belcher and Nancy Davis — Lesley sent a letter to Cathy, telling her about her search and introducing herself.
“I was worried about disrupting their lives, and I wanted them to have a choice of whether to accept me or not,” Lesley says.
She needn’t have worried. Her birth sisters opened their arms and welcomed her into their lives. Then they prepared to gently deliver the news about Lesley to their mother.
“I kept thinking how horrible it must have been for my mom to carry that burden with her all these years,” Nancy, 71, tells PEOPLE. “To not know what had happened to a baby I was sure she had been forced to give away. My heart just broke for her.”
Talking to their mother at the care center, she and Cathy learned that Betty had become pregnant at age 16 and was sent away to a home for unmarried, pregnant young women near Boston, where she lived at the time. Immediately after her daughter was born, the newborn was whisked away and put up for adoption.
“I wondered from time to time if I had a boy or a girl,” Betty tells PEOPLE, “and it made me feel very sad. I prayed that my little one was safe and happy. I never thought about trying to find this child, not even knowing what sex she was.”
“When Cathy and Nancy told me about Lesley, my first reaction was to deny it,” she adds. “Then the truth started coming out in tiny increments when they assured me they weren’t going to be mad. It took a few days for all of it to sink in.”
On July 10, Lesley’s 75th birthday, she and Bob went to St. Petersburg to meet her birth family for the first time.
“My sisters were waiting for us at the airport and we had a very emotional reunion,” she says. “We hugged and cried — they couldn’t have been more accepting.”
“There was no denying that she was our sister,” Cathy, 66, tells PEOPLE. “She looks just like mom and a lot like Nancy. The first time we met, it felt like we were immediately connected.”
At the care center, when Lesley walked into her mother’s room, Betty stretched out her arms and enveloped her daughter in a warm hug. “I kept telling her, ‘My little one,’ ” she recalls, “and I could see the likeness. I thought she was so very cute.”
As for Lesley, who is now introducing Betty to three new grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and will soon help celebrate her mom’s 92nd birthday on Jan. 11, “I looked at her and I saw myself in my mother,” she says. “I hugged and hugged her and didn’t want to let go. It was like I had come home.”